Adapt, mitigate and become resilient all in one - taking a look at the potential of Ecosystem-based Adaptation


                                                               Photo credit: Ashley Cooper

As a student or professional in the field of climate change, you are bound to stumble across Ecosystem-based Adaptation (EbA) at some point. EbA is loaded with promises: adapt, mitigate and become resilient all in one – sounds like the Holy Grail of climate change to me. But is that really true? Of course not. There is no Holy Grail of adaptation (to my knowledge) and EbA is currently not living up to its full potential. So, what can be done to improve EbA?

In basic terms, EbA seeks to conserve and restore biodiversity and ecosystem services (e.g. the provision of food and energy; water filtration and crop pollination; social and cultural use) to support people's adaptation to climate change. Think of wetland restoration, coastal or grassland management, to name some common EbA-labeled projects. Reforested mangroves, for example, mitigate the impacts of storm surges and coastal erosion while absorbing CO2 and providing habitat for flora and fauna. They provide fishing grounds, which can increase local climate change resilience through diversified incomes and nutritional value of the catch. In terms of risk mitigation, mangrove reforestation has often proven to be a much cheaper alternative to structural measures like sea walls. 

What are the shortcomings in EbA?

Sticking to my example of mangrove reforestation, the first shortcoming is displayed: EbA is often output, rather than outcome centered. What that means is that EbA projects often aim to increase resilience and adapt to climate change in a once-off measure. Be it for the perceived or actual need to demonstrate cost effectiveness and the difficulty to monitor and evaluate intangible and expected future impacts of EbA, there is an impulse in practice to show palpable results, like a reforested mangrove swamp. Yet, climate change adaptation is foremost a process, that is continuously shaped by the modelling and understanding of expected climate change impacts, the development of the context and available resources for adaptation. Whichever scale, national, regional or local, this process requires good leadership and specific knowledge, thus, an outcome (or change), rather than measurable outputs.

Looking more closely at the contexts of EbA projects, a strong tendency to differentiate between society and the environment becomes evident. Resilience is often divided into a social and ecological component, which can both be targeted somewhat individually. In my opinion, this is an oversimplified view which limits the analysis of relationships and dependencies of resilience in a specific context. Society and the environment are factually inseparable, considering the extent to which people depend and encroach on it (read for example Folke et al. 2010). Thus, applying a socio-ecological systems perspective in EbA contexts is more purposeful for adaptation.

So, how do you do EbA better?

First of all, have a look at the research out there. EbA may be relatively new (about a decade old), but there are some studies that can point you in the right direction (see the list below). Plenty of experience and research from development and other adaptation options are applicable to EbA as well, there is no need to reinvent the wheel. I know that theory has a bit of a dusty boring tone for many, but a strong theoretical background can enable better context analysis and a more holistic approach in practice.

Second of all, follow this space as I will dig deeper into the topic over the coming weeks. I will dust off EbA theory and especially look at leadership and learning mechanisms for adaptation in my next post.

Further reading:

Folke, C., Carpenter, S., Walker, B., Scheffer, M., Chapin, T. and Rockström, J. (2010) 'Resilience thinking: integrating resilience, adaptability and transformability',Ecology and society, 15:4, 20

Mcleod, E., Szuster, B., Hinkel, J., Tompkins, E.L., Marshall, N., Downing, T., Wongbusarakum, S., Patwardhan, A., Hamza, M., Anderson, C. and Bharwani, S. (2016) 'Conservation organizations need to consider adaptive capacity: why local input matters', Conservation Letters, 9:5, 351-360

Phuong, L.T.H., Biesbroek, G.R. and Wals, A.E. (2017) 'The interplay between social learning and adaptive capacity in climate change adaptation: A systematic review',NJAS-Wageningen Journal of Life Sciences, 82, 1-9

Rossing, T. (2015) 'Introduction to Ecosystem-based Adaptation: A nature-based response to climate change. Global Ecosystem-based Adaptation in Mountains Programme',United Nations Development Programme, Learning Brief 1

Visit http://globalwarmingimages.net/ for Ashley Cooper's powerful set of photos from around the world on climate change inspires action.

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